Grenfell: a tragedy to transform Britain

Human cost: Grenfell’s bosses saved £293,368 by using cheap materials on the tower. © Getty

Will historians of the future see Grenfell as a turning point? The inquiry into the disaster starts today, but answers are not enough: people want assurance that it will never happen again.

“The nightmare continues.” Shah Aghlani lost his mother and aunt in the Grenfell Tower fire. The inquiry into the tragedy, which killed 80 people, opened yesterday. Questions will be asked about what exactly happened on the night of June 14th and how Grenfell Tower came to be so vulnerable to the fire that destroyed the homes of 600 people.

It is not the first time that Britain has experienced trauma. Nearly 200 years before the Grenfell tragedy, 70,000 people gathered at St Peter’s Field, Manchester on a bright August day in 1819. They had to come to protest against their economic hardship and lack of political representation.

Fearing trouble, local official William Hulton sent a note to the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry cavalry requesting that soldiers “proceed immediately” to St Peter’s Field. Within an hour, 15 people lay dead and around 500 were injured in what became known as the “Peterloo Massacre.”

Historians acknowledge that the authorities’ brutal repression of the protestors led to some of the key moments in the development of democracy in Britain. Today, some believe that the Grenfell disaster will also be remembered as a decisive moment in British history.

And yet many doubt how effective the inquiry will be. “I’m not sure it will go in-depth to identify which individuals are responsible for which decisions,” said former Grenfell resident Tomasina Hessel. Meanwhile campaigners criticise the failure to appoint a survivor or local resident to the inquiry’s panel.

Following the revelation that the fire was fuelled by the building’s cheap cladding, authorities in 32 areas around the country evacuated people from their homes with similar concerns. For many, the fire has become a symbol of inequality in Britain: a country where it seems as if safe homes are only available to those who can afford them.

A wake-up call?

Some are confident that the disaster will prompt a radical rethinking of modern Britain. The world was horrified when Grenfell Tower, a social housing block in London’s wealthiest area, went up in flames. The situation was made worse by the slow response of government. This inquiry is a step in the right direction. Now that the inequalities in our society have been exposed, politicians can no longer simply stand by.

Others are far less optimistic. Around 150 families are still waiting for new homes, despite Theresa May’s promise that survivors would be rehoused within three weeks. And authorities have learned nothing: this week it emerged that Grenfell’s boss is still being paid a six-figure salary, despite resigning. Who knows how many more tragedies it will take for our inactive politicians to make Britain a more equal place.

You Decide

  1. In what ways has the Grenfell disaster already affected the country?
  2. Does it always take great tragedy to bring about great change?


  1. List three other moments from history that you consider “turning points.” Be prepared to defend your answer.
  2. Design a monument to commemorate the Grenfell tragedy. Consider what it should look like, where it should be and what it could say (if anything).

Some People Say...

“Inequality is the root of social evil.”

Pope Francis

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Grenfell Action Group (GAG), a residents' association, published a blog between 2013 and 2017; it highlighted the failings of fire safety and maintenance in the building, but requests for reviews of safety procedures and intervention by higher authorities were ignored. Robert Black, the Grenfell boss mentioned in the story, resigned as chief executive of the Tenant Management Organisation in the fire’s aftermath; but he is helping it respond to the resultant inquiries.
What do we not know?
Three months on, the identities of all the fire’s victims are still not known. At least 80 people are believed to have died in the fire; 50 have been identified, including babies and toddlers. Among the victims was 24-year old artist Khadija Saye, who was poised to achieve fame with her work.

Word Watch

Economic hardship
Lots of people were living in extreme poverty in 1819. The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 had seen the return of thousands of soldiers looking for work. Meanwhile, the 1815 Corn Laws had increased the price of grain, making it unaffordable for many.
Political representation
Whether you could vote depended on your wealth. Less than 2% of people had the vote in 1819.
Peterloo Massacre
The name was coined by combining St Peter’s Field with an ironic reference to the 1815 Battle of Waterloo. The British soldiers at Waterloo had helped to defend the country from Napoleon, but in 1819 they turned their weapons on their own people.
Key moments
Some of the important moments that followed Peterloo were the foundation of The Manchester Guardian newspaper (now The Guardian, a left-wing paper); the start of Chartism (a movement fighting for the rights of workers) and the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832 (which gave the vote to more people).
Social housing block
Governments can provide affordable housing to people on low incomes or with particular needs.

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